Farmers are depressed, anxious and at risk of suicide

Farmers in the US are increasingly suffering from depression and anxiety, leaving them at risk of suicide as crop prices stagnate.

Rural growers, fishers and forestry professionals were the most likely occupational groups to commit suicide in 2012, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prices for the top crops produced in the US – including corn, soybeans and wheat – have been in stagnant at best for the last couple of years, and have gradually declined since mid-2012.

Research has shown a close connection between the measurements of farmers’ mental health and the prices of the crops they farm. A recent Minnesota survey found that those who worked closely with farmers had observed increasing signs of issues like anxiety and depression in them.

As crop prices fall, farmer in the US are increasingly depressed, anxious and prone to suicide (file image) 

Top agriculture-producing states, including Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have begun to introduce programs to try to support the mental health of their farmers in light of recent trends.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture surveyed professionals the frequently interact with farmers – such a s bankers and veterinarians – in an attempt to gauge levels of depression and anxiety among farmers.

The survey respondents overwhelmingly agreed about the financial stresses of the farmers they worked with, with 80 percent saying farmers were increasingly under stress. A majority also reported observing increases in anxiety and concerns over what would happen to their farms when they wanted to retire, or when they passed away.

As part of its effort to respond to these concerns, the state’s Department of Agriculture introduced a 24 hour helpline to provide some support to struggling farmers.

The phenomenon is hardly unique to Minnesota. In May, the University of Iowa published the findings of its recent study on the rates of suicide and homicide among farmers in the US.

The researchers found that 230 farmers took their own lives between 1992 and 2010. The researchers noted that these recent suicide rates don’t quite rival the 1980s, but some of the root causes may be similar.

Some consider the 1980s a worse economic crisis for farmers than the Great Depression was. During that decade, the value of farm land fell, and foreclosures swept rural America.

Values of corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops have wavered up and down since, but following the last price peak in 2012, anxious comparisons to the 1980s have re-emerged.

Researchers speculate that, in addition to financial concerns the relative physical isolation and cultural stoicism of American farmers contribute to their vulnerability to mental health concerns and suicide.

In recent years, research has also linked pesticides commonly used by farmers to depression.  

A large 2014 study from the National Institutes of Health and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that exposure to several classes of pesticides increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with depression by as much 90 percent, in some cases. 

Hotlines like Minnesota’s have been introduced in Wisconsin and Nebraska as well. The US Health Resources and Services Administration helps to fund Agrisafe and the Rural Health Information (RHI) Hub, both of which offer some resources for mental health. 

But the RHI Hub’s hotlines, which had operated in seven states, no longer exist. According to RHI’s site, they were not financially sustainable. 

There is still no federal mental health program directed to farmers in particular.